Reading retests whittle down number of MSCS, Tennessee 3rd graders facing retention

A students hand is shown alongside a passage written by the girl about why a cat is not an insect.
In Memphis, 1 in 5 third graders got better news after trying a second time at a reading test used to flag struggling readers for possible retention. (Ann Schimke / Chalkbeat)

Update: June 8, 2023: This story has been updated with statewide results for the retest, provided to Chalkbeat by the Tennessee Department of Education on Thursday.

About 1 in 5 Memphis Shelby-County Schools third graders who took a state retest in reading last month succeeded in earning an easier path to fourth grade — about 1,200 students in all. 

Roughly 500 students in the district did well enough on the retest to be able to go straight to fourth grade, without summer school or tutoring, according to results released Wednesday by the Tennessee Department of Education. The other 700 improved enough that they can choose either summer school or tutoring to advance, rather than having to attend both. 

That still leaves large numbers of MSCS third graders — along with thousands more across the state — who may have to participate in both interventions to avoid being held back under the state’s strict new retention law for struggling readers.

Statewide, about 3,300 third graders scored proficient on the retest, and can head straight to fourth grade, according to updated data shared with Chalkbeat Thursday. That’s nearly 13% of third graders who took the test across the state. About 60% of third graders who didn’t score proficient in the spring tried the test a second time.

The district-level retest results released Wednesday give district and state officials a fuller picture of the impact of the 2021 law, which took effect with this year’s third graders

The results didn’t account for students who successfully appeal their scores, and the ones who are exempt from the law because they have limited English proficiency or reading disabilities, or have been retained before.

But in MSCS, the state’s largest district, the retest made a difference for hundreds of students  who were initially identified as being at risk for retention, based on their English language arts scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program. About three-quarters of MSCS third graders didn’t score proficient on the initial test administered in the spring, one of the worst rates in the state. 

Critics of the test have said it does not specifically measure reading skills, making it a poor criterion for determining whether third graders can be promoted.

Statewide, some 44,000 students, or 60% of third graders, did not demonstrate proficiency on the initial TCAP English language arts test. 

But unlike most other Tennessee districts, MSCS got almost all the students who didn’t pass the first test to take a similar retest during the final weeks of school.

“We are proud of students who participated in the retake for exploring this pathway,” interim state Education Commissioner Sam Pearcy said in a statement about the scores.

Clay County Schools, a small district in north central Tennessee, reaped significant benefits from the retest. While only half the third graders eligible for a retest participated, three-fifths of them did well enough to score proficient and move automatically to fourth grade. 

For most school districts, though, improvements from the retest were more modest. 

Here are key takeaways from a review of the district-level results: 

  • Half of Tennessee districts had between 10% and 20% of their students achieve proficiency on the retest. 
  • A third of Tennessee districts had between 10% and 20% of students improve from the lowest performance level — “below” proficiency — to the next-highest level, “approaching” proficiency.
  • Just under half of Tennessee districts had fewer than 10% of students improve from “below” to “approaching.”
  • A little more than half of Tennessee districts had a retest participation rate of 50% or more. 

Results for each district are in the chart below.

Correction: June 8, 2023: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of students who did not score proficient on the spring English language arts tests. It is 44,000, not 74,000.

Thomas Wilburn and Nadia Bey contributed data analysis. 

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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